Family businesses are frequently told to start succession planning early

What happens when everything changes?

Teresa Spinnelli’s father, Franco, emigrated from Italy in 1951 and opened the Italian Centre Shop on Edmonton’s 95 Street in 1959. Her mom, Rina, worked as the cashier. The Italian Centre quickly became a mainstay of an area that came to be known as Little Italy, a gathering place for Edmonton’s Italian community and a place to introduce Albertans to Italian culture. As Spinelli and her younger brother Pietro grew up, the store became their second home and their training ground. But there was never any doubt that the business would be taken over by Pietro. “After all,” Spinelli says, “in a very traditional Italian family, that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”

Rina Spinelli and her daughter Teresa in their Little Italy store location
Photograph Ryan Girard

But things didn’t go according to plan. In 1996 Pietro passed away, and five months later Franco was diagnosed with cancer. Spinelli suddenly found herself saddled with much of the responsibility for running the store. When Franco died in 2000, Spinelli made the difficult decision to take on the business permanently.

She knew she would face opposition from some employees, given that many of them had been working at the store since she was a child. “They still thought of me as the little girl who used to ‘play’ cashier,” she says. Some also had difficulty taking direction from a woman, and there was the challenge of following in her father’s footsteps. “My father was an outstanding human being; he was well known, respected and admired,” she says. “I had very big shoes to fill. No one, including me, was sure that I could do it.”

“My father was an outstanding human being; he was well known, respected and admired. I had very big shoes to fill. No one, including me, was sure that I could do it.” – Teresa Spinelli, owner, The Italian Centre Shop

The first thing she did was call an all-staff meeting, something her dad never did. She wanted to put an end to rumours that the family might sell the business. “I had done some soul searching,” she says, “and I let my employees know that I was here to stay.” To boost her confidence and her business acumen, Spinelli joined a local business group where she could discuss common struggles such as staffing, wages, stress and taxes with other business owners. “The biggest and most important thing I learned was that I was working so hard in my business – being the cashier, balancing tills, hiring, putting out fires – that I had no time to work on my business,” she says. “If you want your business to grow, you have to work on your future.”

She proceeded to develop a business strategy, build a strong management  team and set a vision for the store. She broke the unwritten rules of her family business and hired outside the family, knowing that she needed professionals to help grow the business. But even that was no simple task. “One of my second cousins was the bookkeeper, and I just could not let him go,” she says. “I had to wait until he decided this was not the right job for him. Looking back, I wish I had [dealt with] it sooner.”

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Photograph Ryan Girard

To foster a positive team environment, Spinelli implemented a company-wide profit-sharing plan. She wanted to compel employees to take ownership for everything they did for the business. Other changes were less noticeable, but helped to breathe new life into the store and to restore its reputation as the heart and soul of Edmonton’s Little Italy. “I had new signs made,” she says. “Imagine – we still had handwritten prices for our deli items. We were a multimillion-dollar business but we ran it as if it were a corner store.”

And she encouraged her staff to come forward with ideas to improve the business. “Some of the best ideas for the store have come from my employees,” she says, “and we have implemented almost all of them.”

The changes Spinelli made have paid off, both in terms of better productivity and higher profits. In the company’s first fiscal year of implementing the profit-sharing program, for instance, the store’s bottom line improved by almost 75 per cent after profit-sharing payouts. The store was at full capacity and Spinelli knew expansion was in order. A year and a half later, the Italian Centre opened a second – bigger and more upscale – location south of the river.

While Spinelli had always wanted to be a part of the family business, she had accepted early on that she would be relegated to the sidelines. That is, until fate intervened. Franco started the business and made it successful, and Spinelli has expanded it and made it into her own. She isn’t her father, and it didn’t work for her to do business the way he had. Instead, she carved her own path as a business owner while still upholding her father’s legacy. “I know now that I wasn’t living my life to please my dad,” she says. “It was the life I wanted.”

Ultimately, Spinelli learned that in order to keep her family business alive and well, and to achieve her vision for growth, she couldn’t just keep it in the family. More importantly, she bucked the cultural stereotype she had grown up with that a woman couldn’t be in charge, although even now her mother hasn’t yet fully acknowledged that her daughter is now the boss. “The other day, I had a meeting with suppliers, and they were all men,” Spinelli says. “As I walked by my mom, I heard her say, ‘What is she doing with all those men?’ To her, the most important thing I accomplish in a day is that I get home in time to cook my family dinner!”

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